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Germs, dehydration, weight gain: Tips for staying healthy when traveling

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: May 11
  • Published May 11

Whose job is it to stay healthy when you’re traveling?

Sometimes, people fall ill while on the road and need immediate help from the people around them. Kevin Clarkson, Alaska’s attorney general, had a heart attack at the Seattle airport last week. Thankfully, he rang the flight attendant call button to let people know he was feeling ill. He said that probably saved his life.

Hopefully you won’t have a heart attack on your next trip. But there are plenty of illnesses, infections and bad germs that can mess you up while you’re on the road.

Donna Phillips is an ICU nurse in Anchorage, and she heads up the Alaska Nurses Association. She says there are a few tried-and-true safeguards that can help you when you’re in a different time zone — or a different country.

“Wash your hands,” said Phillips. “In the hospital, we’re always washing our hands. And don’t touch your mouth, your nose or your eyes unless your hands are clean.”

Phillips also implores travelers to stay home if they’re already sick. “Seriously, don’t get on the plane if you’re sick,” she said.

The third surefire item for when you’re on the road is to drink lots of water. “Alaska Airlines is really good about this,” she said. “As soon as the seat belt sign is off, the flight attendants are walking the aisle passing out water.”

Just to clarify: Although there’s plenty of water in both booze and coffee, it’s best to limit those when you’re traveling.

“I’ve been asked several times on planes to attend to a sick passenger,” said Phillips. “Often, the problem is dehydration. They’ve been out in the sun all day and now they’re on the plane, which compounds the problem.”

The uptick in measles cases around the U.S. has all health care providers on the lookout for the telltale rash.

“Measles are very contagious,” said Phillips. “Right now there are more than 700 cases in the U.S. People are contagious for four days before a rash appears and for four days after you can see the rash.”

The measles outbreak underscores the importance of being up-to-date on your immunizations. Phillips suggests travelers check with their health care provider to see if they need a booster.

As a nurse, Phillips always travels with a compact kit on the road. “I carry aspirin, something for nausea, Imodium for diarrhea and Sudafed or another cold medicine,” she said. “But nurses never have Band-Aids. That’s crazy.”

Once you’re off the plane, you’re still not out of the woods, germ-wise. “If I’m on a subway or a bus, I often will wear gloves and then wash my hands afterwards,” said Phillips.

Johnny Discala, also known as Johnny Jet, travels all the time. “I get up all the time and move around on the plane,” he said. “Plus, I pay extra for some extra legroom if I can’t get the bulkhead or exit row.”

Discala is a big fan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. There’s an entire section on travelers’ health, featuring a separate page for each country. For example, when I went to Vietnam, I looked up the recommended vaccinations and a list of current conditions that may increase the risks of certain diseases (rabies and malaria). Then there’s a suggested packing list, including alcohol-based hand sanitizer, insect repellent and sunscreen.

Travel insurance can save you a bunch of money if you have an accident on the road. “You have to read the fine print,” cautions DiScala. “Many people don’t realize your travel insurance won’t cover extreme sports like bungee jumping, skydiving or scuba diving. But, when my son had to go to the emergency room in New York, Allianz (his travel insurance provider) paid the $1,500 bill.”

Another component to travel insurance is medical evacuation, or medevac. “Companies like MedJet Assist offer policies to get you back to the hospital of your choice,” said Discala.

Christopher Elliott is another frequent traveler who basically lives on the road. In fact, he’s been traveling the country for the past couple of years with three kids in tow.

Elliott and his son Aren are vegans — and that’s helped to instill a food discipline habit during their travels.

“The first thing that goes out the window when you’re on vacation is your food discipline,” said Elliott. “I see a lot of my colleagues struggle with their weight because they’re always eating like they’re on vacation.”

Elliott spends time planning out his meals, and that includes when they’re flying to another destination. “I try and stay out of restaurants,” he said. “For a trip, I tell people to pack twice as much food and half as much clothing.”

Elliott says he and his kids also are avid walkers. “We walk about 10 to 13 miles per day,” said Elliott. “It’s a great way to see a place and meet new people.”

If these tips for healthy travel sound familiar, it’s because they work. You can’t go wrong if you drink lots of water, make a habit of exercising on your trip and get your shots before you go. Add the advice to get lots of rest before you get on the plane. That’s easier said than done when you have a midnight flight — but everyone does the best they can.

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